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YF&R: Young farmer learns on California dairy operations

Issue Date: April 7, 2021
By Ching Lee
Madeline Meyer, assistant manager at Tollcrest Dairy in Wheatland, represented California in the national Young Farmers and Ranchers Discussion Meet, advancing to the Sweet 16 round of the competition.
Photo/Ching Lee

Even though she plans someday to return closer to her dairy family in the Midwest, Madeline Meyer says she hopes to take what she's learning at a Yuba County dairy and put it to use back home.

At 22 and with nothing "tying me down," Meyer is nearly a year into her stint as an assistant manager at Tollcrest Dairy in Wheatland, where she also lives.

Whether she's helping with calving, breeding, feeding calves, treating sick cows or activities in the milking parlor, Meyer said her experience at one of the county's last dairies is "better than grad school." She described her boss, Sean Tollenaar, as "a very unconventional dairyman" who "does a lot of creative things."

"He's such a good teacher and I want to continue to be a sponge and absorb as much as I can from him," she said.

Meyer's first experience working on a California dairy dates back to the summer of 2019, when she interned for a dairy family in Tulare. After graduating from Michigan State University last May, Meyer said she became restless from the pandemic and "wanted to come back to sunny California."

She knew Tollenaar through one of her professors, who went to Cal Poly with the dairy farmer and told her "he was the best to work for."

Meyer said she has benefited from being able to experience both San Joaquin Valley and Northern California dairies.

"The way that dairymen operate out here is much different than in Michigan," she said. "It's good because I think there's some things I could take back and implement there and vice versa."

One notable difference between the two states, she said, relates to feed that dairies grow themselves.

Tollcrest Dairy, which milks 2,000 cows and raises more than 3,000 heifers, farms just a couple hundred acres, she said, buying 92% of its feed, including almond hulls and rice byproducts from local farms. Her home dairy in Michigan, on the other hand, milks about 1,500 cows and farms 4,000 acres, with most of it being alfalfa haylage and corn silage to feed the herd.

Because of climate and weather differences, dairies in the two states house their animals differently, she said. Cows in the Golden State can be outside in corrals, whereas free-stall barns are more common in the Great Lakes State. California farmers tend to worry more about wildfires and not getting enough rain, whereas she said Midwestern farmers are more concerned about keeping their fields drained from floodwater. California pasture conditions also allow more dairies here to take advantage of niche markets that are not as easy to enter for Midwestern dairies, she added.

With California laws and regulations "much stricter than the rest of the nation," Meyer said she's getting a "heads up" on what's "coming down the pipeline in the future for the rest of the country."

"Whether I stay here forever or whether I end up going home to my home dairy or something else, I know that I'll always take the lessons that (Tollenaar) is teaching me with me," Meyer said.

Being new to the area and with the pandemic making it hard to meet people and make friends, Meyer said she joined the Yuba-Sutter Young Farmers and Ranchers group last September and later heard about the state YF&R Discussion Meet—which she won during the 2020 California Farm Bureau Annual Meeting.

Meyer said being involved in YF&R has exposed her to more California farms, noting the group last month visited an almond orchard, where she got to talk with a beekeeper, and went to a purebred Hereford cattle ranch in Oroville during calving season.

"It's been fun just to get to learn more about agriculture in California, because it's so diverse," she said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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